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Black Football Student-Athletes’ Perceived Barriers to Seeking Mental Health Services

By Todd A. Wilkerson, Ph.D, Langston University; Sarah Stokowski, Ph.D, University of Arkansas; Alison Fridley, Ph.D, University of Arkansas; Stephen W. Dittmore, Ph.D, University of Arkansas; Charles A. Bell, MEd, University of Arkansas

Black student-athletes, especially males, have been frequently stereotyped and given unflattering labels at their respective institutions. Research shows this population has been viewed as athletically superior and academically inferior to their counterparts. Many student-athletes come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and single-parent households; often student-athletes, particularly in high profile sports (e.g., basketball, football) are first-generation college students. Hardships, poverty, and poor schooling limit the overall college experience for Black student-athletes. These disadvantages leave Black male student-athletes feeling exploited and isolated. 


Athletic departments play a vital role in promoting a positive environment for the student-athlete. In spite of this, many athletic departments do not employ mental health professionals for their student-athletes. Many barriers have existed regarding student-athletes’ help-seeking behaviors, such as attitudes towards race or ethnicity, negative experiences with mental health professionals, stigmas, and the belief that there is no problem or simply that the problem will magically disappear. 


As such, the purpose of this study was to examine the perceived barriers Black Division I football student-athletes at a NCAA Division I Power 5 institution face in seeking professional mental health services. Using phenomenological methodology, semi-structured interviews were conducted with nine individuals. Each participant signed an informed consent statement and allowed their interview to be digitally recorded. To protect the confidentiality of the student-athletes, each participant selected a pseudonym and all identifying markers were removed upon transcription.





Weakness was viewed as one of two major barriers to the participants seeking mental health treatment. Many of the participants felt as if it was their responsibility to always be ready to play despite their emotional state. Some of the participants referred to this as being “mentally tough” and believed they would be viewed as weak if they decided to pursue mental health treatment.


Jason expressed his view on being perceived or seen as the “weak guy” on the team:


“I don’t know, man. I feel like, I feel like people just don’t want to be seen as the guy, the weak guy, that needs help, you know. No one wants to need help. I don’t know nobody that wants to need help. So, everybody kinda wants to be independent and handle things on their own. And, if it’s possible to handle some mental thing going on, then definitely.”


Jose equated weakness to where he was raised and expressed the view is placed on all people, even those in desperate need of help:


“I will say some people, some, I know I’m from the country, like and all the like people on my biological dad’s side, they feel like talking to a counselor and stuff like that is weak, but that’s what people needs to get, to get healthy. You know? So.”


Stigma emerged as the first subtheme under weakness. The participants identified stigma as a barrier that kept them from pursuing or receiving mental health treatment. Some of the student-athletes shared their views and perceptions of the stigmas facing Black male Division I football student-athletes pursuing mental health resources. 


Jason provided insight on his thoughts regarding the stigma of receiving mental health services, explaining that “society” can be a barrier for student-athletes seeking treatment. He continued that some people are hesitant or scared to pursue professional help, “I feel like some people might be afraid to be viewed a certain way for needing help with having healthy mental health. You know what I’m saying?” 


Similarly, Anthony believed coaches viewed student-athletes utilizing mental health services as less capable than the student-athletes not undergoing mental health treatment. He revealed the belief that some players kept mental health concerns hidden to emphasize and demonstrate to their coaches that they were ready to play, specifically stating:


“I guess like players try to hide it because they always want to show the coach they are here to go and for them, so like they probably don’t speak on it as much because of that. So, they keep it into their self.”


Toughness emerged as the second sub-theme under silence. Jose linked toughness to masculinity, “men supposed to have you know that role of being like strong all the time.” He continued with men are “never supposed to let nobody see them crying. Not supposed to be down and stuff like that. So, that’s why they view it as weak.” 


Jason alluded to football being a tough sport to play and felt that a lot of his teammates would rather handle their problems on their own. He expressed:


“It’s about toughness, man, it’s about, you gotta, I feel like some people, some people get so used to living the lifestyle of being a tough guy that even when they are not trying to be, they are. You know? So, some people it’s just they pride. They can’t let nobody see you down. So, you don’t really want to go talk to nobody about nothing like that because you don’t want anybody to see you down.”


Time, or “who got time for this”, was established as the third sub-theme under weakness. Participants felt they did not have enough time to even consider mental health treatment, as they expressed their athletic and academic requirements significantly limited their free time.


BJ found time constraints acted as a major barrier in several areas of his life. He expressed challenges finding time to eat, let alone time to seek mental health treatment. BJ explained that “you have to figure it out”, because as an athlete it is very important to have proper nutrition. He specifically stated: 


“Well, sometimes, like, it’s really hard like to try to find time to like do things that you really need to do as far as like eating, like eating is an important thing, like, but if you not, you would like forget to eat with the schedule that comes with a student athlete. You’d be like, “Dang, I didn’t eat”, like, how am I supposed to perform on the field at a high level and supposed to be a freak of nature like some [conference] athlete, but you need to eat. You gotta figure it out. It’s like little things like that, like, can really, like, be affected.”


This lack of time to eat demonstrated the insufficient time student-athletes have for their daily needs. Not having proper nutrition can easily affect a persons’ mental state, and BJ mentioned how performing at a high level requires an appropriate diet. Time constraints add to the stress and pressure already associated with being a Black male division I football player.

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Anthony expressed a similar stance on time constraints: 


“Like, see right now I’ve been hurt so this past spring I’d wake up at six every day, go to breakfast around seven, go to class at eight, go to rehab if I have any other break, go back to class, then now I have to be at the facility at 2:30 and be there until like 6:30 and probably leave there at seven, so I just had a whole 12 to 13 hour shift it felt like.”




Silence represented the second major theme derived from the data. The participants revealed an absence in conversations regarding mental health. For example, Anthony “talked to no one about [his] problems.” He keeps issues to himself stating, “I’m not used to like just going to talk to no one really or just going to seek for someone to help me with my problems.” Participants of this study assumed coaches and administrators of their university would facilitate these conversations. 


Jeff explained the inadequate conversations from coaches regarding mental health as realistic, “I feel like they know, they know it could play a big factor if it ever gets to that point, but, you know realistically we don’t talk about mental health.” He went on to say help is not there when it is needed, “We don’t get the treatments, nobody there for them when you need it. But, like I said, nobody really brings it up besides if they do bring it up they just want their medicine.” 


Josh felt that a lot of his teammates’ dealt with mental health issues. He stated, “like I said, a lot of them will go through things,” but “we don’t really talk about it or say anything about it.” Josh felt his coaches did not talk about mental health because “all they care about is us playing football.” He continued, “they don’t want to talk about it” and “they really don’t care.” 


Separately, Terrence guessed his coaches cared about mental health stating, “I guess they see it as important. That’s what I have to assume” because “they don’t talk about it.” If necessary they will “probably on the individual basis like you could probably go talk to one of them and they will tell you, but they don’t, you know, say it in an organized way.” 


The majority of participants in this study revealed that mental health is not a common topic for discussion in the locker room, on campus, or in the community. The lack of conversation surrounding mental health was a concern for many of the participants. Specifically, the inability of coaches, administrators, and family members to address mental health served as a barrier to help-seeking behavior. 


Awareness. The silence, or the absence of conversations about mental health, revealed a lack of participant awareness regarding mental health services. Awareness gained traction throughout the study because of how the participants viewed their environment and resources. Campus resources are a vital part of awareness for the participants. While sports psychologists were widely discussed during the interviews, few participants had utilized the resource and the majority struggled to articulate their purpose. 


Bob believed sports psychologists “try to understand us for who we are as, as a player instead of as a person.” Meanwhile, John expressed that a sports psychologist “is somebody that is supposed to help with your mental state, as like, because they know you athletes go through so much. I just feel like it’s probably not offered enough.” Similarly, Terrence described a sports psychologist as “somebody that handles sports-related depression issues, like, things like that. But I feel like that’s not really the best thing for people.” Jason explained he had met with a sports psychologist during his time at his university, however, he “couldn’t tell you” their role in athletics. 


Community. Community perception or level of care was also considered a barrier for this study. The participants expressed difficulty trusting people in their home communities and preferred talking with family about mental health.


Jeff openly discussed how his background affects his ability to speak with people about issues. He expressed that it is difficult to trust certain people. “I just, I just feel like sometimes, like I said, you just come from different backgrounds and you just can’t trust with that type of information it is just sometimes you don’t feel comfortable in trusting a person.” 


Anthony’s response coincided with Jeff’s. He felt that he and his teammates’ backgrounds were similar and explained that they are more comfortable talking to their family. He revealed:


“Like a lot of my teammates come from like similar backgrounds as me so they not used to just, they probably just used to talking to their family or some friends back home, but now we up here for four years out of your life, so it’s just different, like, you have to find a new crowd but you don’t trust them like the people back home so it’s just harder to communicate.”


Community, though, can pose problems for some. BJ spoke of the challenges in seeking mental health services in his community:


“You gotta think about it, like, in that time, well not really in that time, but the people that I’m growing up around, I done grew up around like a lot of them, a lot of them went on to do great things, but a lot of them they not there no more. They, you know, they somewhere, maybe in prison. Might be deceased. You know what I’m saying?”


Cultural Context. The final sub-theme that emerged from the data was cultural context. This referred to the participants background influencing who they felt they could (and could not) talk to about mental health. 


John expressed culture as a barrier to seeking mental health services stating, “you know the black family, the momma usually the one holding everything down. So, I feel that’s the strongest person in the family. You can go to her to talk.” Terrence, similarly, indicated this “is how they grew up. Like if you gotta problem you tell your mom. You talk to your mom whether you grown or not. Like that is just how we do things.” Jason revealed that he believes “It’s a culture thing. It’s definitely a culture thing because I mean when I think about it not really many of my friends, you know what I’m saying, talk about issues that go on inside the house.” He also added that race plays a part in not seeking professional services: 


So, I think it is definitely a culture thing, a race thing, because I feel like, um, white people would definitely go seek help for stuff like that. But us, we just try to deal with it within the walls of our home.”


It was evident that community and cultural background play a role in these participants seeking professional mental health services. 




More needs to be done on college campuses to ensure Black student-athletes feel a part of the campus community. Athletic departments should add cultural competency training for all staff members and practice inclusive hiring for mental health professionals to reflect the needs of the student-athlete population. Moreover, Black student-athletes should not be isolated in their athletic faction. All athletes should be encouraged to seek mental health treatment and should not feel they need to “have a problem” in order to seek psychological assistance. 


This study demonstrated that student-athletes need to be informed of who sports psychologists are and what their role in athletics is. Perhaps student-athletes should be required to participate in educational initiatives about mental health and how to access mental health services. Sport psychologists should be on the medical staff, similar to team doctors, to make mental health services more accessible to Black football student-athletes. In addition, mental health personnel should be incorporated into team activities in order to normalize those in these positions. This would reduce stigma and further promote psychological well-being. Additionally, athletes should be encouraged to take care of themselves. If self-care is encouraged, athletes will perform better athletically and academically. 


Although it is difficult to change a community, student-athletes enter a new culture upon arriving at institutions of higher learning. This culture should promote safe spaces for athletes which includes a focus on psychological well-being. Due to the importance the participants placed on family; perhaps student-athlete’s families should be aware of the resources available on campus regarding mental health. Information should also be provided to families on how to talk to their loved one about mental health and how to encourage help-seeking behaviors. 


This excerpt is from an article published in a special issue of Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics on mental health co-edited by Dr. Sarah Stokowski, Assistant Professor, University of Arkansas, and Dr. Alex Auerbach, Sport Psychologist, University or Arizona Athletics. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Full article text is linked here.